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Authors: Alan Furst

Spies of the Balkans

BOOK: Spies of the Balkans
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Night Soldiers
Dark Star
The Polish Officer
The World at Night
Red Gold
Kingdom of Shadows
Blood of Victory
Dark Voyage
The Foreign Correspondent
The Spies of Warsaw
In August of 1939, General Ioannis Metaxas
the prime minister of Greece, told a Roumanian
diplomat "that the old Europe would end when
the swastika flew over the Acropolis."


The storm began in the north--on the fifth day of October in the year 1940--where sullen cloud lay over the mountain villages on the border of Bulgaria and Greece. By midday it had drifted south, heavier now, rolling down the valley of the Vardar River until, at dusk, it reached the heights of the city of Salonika and, by the time the streetlamps came on, rain dripped from the roof tiles in the ancient alleyways of the port and dappled the surface of the flat, dark sea.

Just after six in the evening, Costa Zannis, known to the city as
a senior police official
--whatever that meant, perhaps no more than a suit instead of a uniform--left his office on the top floor of an anonymous building on the Via Egnatia, walked down five flights of creaky wooden stairs, stepped out into the street, and snapped his umbrella aloft. Earlier that day he'd had a telephone call from the port captain, something to do with the arrival of the Turkish tramp freighter
--"an irregularity" was the phrase the captain used, adding that he preferred to pursue the matter in person. "You understand me, Costa," he'd said. Oh yes, Zannis understood all too well. At that moment, Greece had been ruled by the Metaxas dictatorship since 1936--the length of women's skirts was regulated; it was forbidden to read aloud the funeral oration of Pericles--and people were cautious about what they said on the telephone. And, with much of Europe occupied by Nazi Germany, and Mussolini's armies in Albania, on the Greek frontier, one wasn't sure what came next. So,
don't trust the telephone
. Or the newspapers. Or the radio. Or tomorrow.

Entering the vast street market on Aristotle Square, Zannis furled his umbrella and worked his way through the narrow aisles. Rain pattered on the tin roofing above the stalls, fishmongers shouted to the crowd, and, as Zannis passed by, the merchants smiled or nodded or avoided his eyes, depending on where they thought they stood with the Salonika police that evening. A skeletal old woman from the countryside, black dress, black head scarf, offered him a dried fig. He smiled politely and declined, but she thrust it toward him, the mock ferocity of her expression meaning that he had no choice. He tore the stem off, flicked it into the gutter, then ate the fig, which was fat and sweet, raised his eyebrows in appreciation, said, "It's very good, thank you," and went on his way. At the far end of the market, a sponge peddler, a huge sack slung over his shoulder, peered anxiously out at the rain. Marooned, he could only wait, for if his sponges got wet he'd have to carry the weight for the rest of the night.

The customshouse stood at the center of the city's two main piers, its function stated on a broad sign above the main entry, first in Greek, then with the word
. On the upper floor, the port captain occupied a corner office, the sort of office that had over the years become a home; warm in the chilly weather, the still air scented with wood smoke and cigarettes, one of the port cats asleep by the woodstove. On the wall behind the desk hung a brightly colored oleograph of Archbishop Alexandros, in long black beard and hair flowing to his shoulders, hands clasped piously across his ample stomach. By his side, formal photographs of a stern General Metaxas and a succession of port officials of the past, two of them, in fading sepia prints, wearing the Turkish fez. On the adjoining wall, handsomely framed, were the wife and children of the present occupant, well fed, dressed to the hilt, and looking very dignified.

The present occupant was in no hurry; a brief call on the telephone produced, in a few minutes, a waiter from a nearby
--coffeehouse--with two tiny cups of Turkish coffee on a brass tray. After a sip, the captain lit a cigarette and said, "I hope I didn't get you down here for nothing, Costa. In such miserable fucking weather."

Zannis didn't mind. "It's always good to see you," he said. "The
, I think you said. Where's she berthed?"

"Number eight, on the left-hand side. Just behind a Dutch grain freighter--a German grain freighter now, I guess."

"For the time being," Zannis said.

They paused briefly to savor the good things the future might hold, then the captain said,
docked this morning. I waited an hour, the captain never showed up, so I went to find him. Nothing unusual, gangplank down, nobody about, so I went on board and headed for the captain's office, which is pretty much always in the same place, just by the bridge. A few sailors at work, but it was quiet on board, and going down the passageway toward the bridge I passed the wardroom. Two officers, gossiping in Turkish and drinking coffee, and a little man in a suit, with shiny shoes, reading a newspaper. German newspaper. Oh, I thought, a passenger."

"See his face?"

"Actually I didn't. He was behind his newspaper--
Volkischer Beobachter?
I believe it was. Anyhow, I didn't think much about it. People get around these days any way they can, and they don't go anywhere at all unless they have to."


The captain nodded. "You may just have to swim. Eventually I found the captain up on the bridge--a man I've known for years, by the way--and we went back to his office so I could have a look at the manifest. But--no passenger. So, I asked. 'Who's the gent in the wardroom?' The captain just looked at me. What a look!"

"Meaning ...?"

Don't ask me that
. Life's hard enough these days without this sort of nonsense."

Zannis's smile was ironic. "Oh dear," he said.

The captain laughed, relieved. "Don't be concerned, you mean."

From Zannis, a small sigh. "No, but it's me who has to be concerned. On the other hand, as long as he stays where he is ... What's she carrying?"

"In ballast. She's here to load baled tobacco, then headed up to Hamburg."

"You didn't happen to see the passenger come this way, did you?"

"No, he hasn't left the ship."

Zannis raised an eyebrow. "You're sure?"

"I've had a taxi waiting out there all afternoon. If he tries to enter the city, two beeps on the horn."

This time the sigh was deeper, because Zannis's plans for the evening had vanished into the night. "I'll use your telephone," he said. "And then I'll take a little walk."

Zannis walked past the taxi on the pier--the driver awake, to his surprise--then continued until he could see the
. Nothing unusual; a rust-streaked gray hull, a cook tossing a pail of kitchen garbage into the bay. He'd thought about ordering up a pair of detectives, then decided not to get them out in the rain. But now the rain had stopped, leaving in its place a heavy mist that made halos around the streetlamps. Zannis stood there, the city behind him quiet, a foghorn moaning somewhere out in the darkness.

He'd turned forty that summer, not a welcome event but what could you do. He was of average height, with a thick muscular body and only an inch of belly above his belt. Skin a pale olive color, not bad-looking at all though more boxer than movie star, a tough guy, in the way he moved, in the way he held himself. Until you looked at his face, which suggested quite a different sort of person. Wide generous mouth and, behind steel-framed eyeglasses, very blue eyes: lively eyes. He had dry black hair which, despite being combed with water in the morning, was tousled by the time he reached the office and fell down on his forehead and made him look younger, and softer, than he was. All in all, an expressive face, rarely still--when you spoke to him you could always see what he thought about whatever you said, amusement or sympathy or curiosity, but always something. So, maybe a tough guy, but your friend the tough guy. The policeman. And, in his black suit and soft gray shirt, tie knot always pulled down and the collar button of the shirt open, a rather gentle version of the breed. On purpose, of course.

He'd certainly never meant to be a cop. And--once he fell into being a cop--never a detective, and--once promoted to that position--never what he was now. He'd never even known such a job existed. Neither of his parents had been educated beyond the first six years; his grandmother could neither read nor write, his mother doing so only with difficulty. His father had worked his way into half ownership of a florist shop in the good part of Salonika, so the family was never poor; they managed, pretty much like everyone else he knew. Zannis wasn't much of a student, which didn't matter because in time he'd work in the shop. And, until 1912, Salonika had remained a part of the Ottoman Empire--Athens and the western part of the nation having fought free of the Turks in 1832--so to be Greek was to know your place and the sort of ambition that drew attention wasn't such a good idea.

By age twelve, as the Greek army marched in to end the Second Balkan War, Zannis's private dreams had mostly involved escape; foreign places called to him, so maybe work on a ship or a train. Not unusual. His mother's brother had emigrated to America, to a mysterious place called Altoona, in the state of Pennsylvania, from whence postal cards arrived showing the main street or the railway station. Until 1912, at times when the money ran out, the Zannis family considered joining him, working in his diner, a silvery building with rounded corners. Yes, maybe they should go there; they'd have to talk about it. Soon.

And, six years later, they did leave, but they didn't go to Altoona. In 1917, as Anglo-French and Greek forces fought the Bulgarians in Macedonia, a sideshow to the war in France, Salonika burned, in what came to be known as the Great Fire. The Zannis house, up in the heights by the ancient battlements, survived, but the florist shop did not, and there was no money to rebuild. Now what?

It was his father's brother who saved the day. He had, as a young man, involved himself in fighting the Turks, with a pistol, and the day came when, threatened with life in a Turkish prison, he had to run away. He ran to Paris, mostly walking or riding trains without a ticket until they threw him off, but in time he got there.

And, with luck and determination, with playing cards for money, and with the advent of a jolly French widow of a certain age, he had managed to buy a stall in the flea market in Clignancourt, in the well-visited section known as Serpette. "Forget Alteena," he wrote in a letter to his brother. "I need you here." A little money was sent and the Zannis family, parents and grandmother, Costa and his younger brother--an older sister had earlier married an electrician and emigrated to Argentina--got on a fruit ship and worked their way to Le Havre. And there, waving up at them from the wharf, was the benevolent uncle and his jolly wife. On the train, Zannis's heart rose with every beat of the rails.

Two hours later, he'd found his destiny: Paris. The girls adored him--soon enough he fell in love--and he had a lot of money for a seventeen-year-old boy from Greece. He worked for his uncle as an
, an antiques dealer, selling massive armoires and all sorts of junk to tourists and the very occasional Parisian. They had a magnificent old rogue with a great white beard who turned out Monets and Rubenses by the yard. "Well, I can't say, because it isn't signed, maybe you should have somebody look at it, but if the nice lady comes back in twenty minutes, as she swore she would, we'll have to sell it, so if I were you ..."

The happiest time of his life, those twelve years.

At least, he thought later, it lasted that long. In 1929, as the markets crashed, Zannis's father went to bed with what seemed like a bad cold then died a day later of influenza, while they were still waiting for the doctor. Bravely, Zannis's mother insisted they stay where they were--Costa was doing so well. By then he spoke good French--the lingua franca of Salonika--and he'd taken courses in German and learned to speak it well: some day the stall would be his, he'd met a woman, Laurette, a few years older than he and raising two children, and he was enchanted with her. A year earlier they'd started living together in Saint-Ouen, home to the Clignancourt market. But, as winter turned to spring, his mother's grief did not subside and she wanted to go home. Back to where she could see her family and gossip with friends.

She never said it aloud but Zannis, now head of the household, knew what she felt and so they went home. Laurette could not, or would not, leave with him, would not take her children to a foreign place, so her heart was broken. As was his. But family was family.

Back in Salonika, and urgently needing to make a living, he took a job as a policeman. He didn't much care for it, but he worked hard and did well. In a city where the quarter known as the Bara held the largest red-light district in eastern Europe, in a city of waterfront dives and sailors of every nation, there was always plenty of work for a policeman. Especially the tolerant sort of policeman who settled matters before they got out of hand and never took money.

By 1934 he was promoted to detective and, three years later, to, technically, the rank of sub-commander, though nobody ever used that title. This advancement did not just happen by itself. An old and honored expression, from the time of the Turkish occupation, said that it was most fortunate to have a
barba sto palati
, an uncle in the palace, and it turned out, to Zannis's surprise, that he had that very thing. His particular talent, a kind of rough diplomacy, getting people to do what he wanted without hitting them, had been observed from on high by the head of the Salonika police, a near mystic presence in the city. Vangelis was at least eighty years old, some said older, with the smile of a saint--thus St. Vangelis, at least to those who could appreciate irony and veneration in the same phrase. For fifty years, nothing had gone on in Salonika that the old man didn't know about, and he'd watched Zannis's career with interest. So in 1937, when Zannis decided to resign his position, Vangelis offered him a new one. His own office, a detective, a clerk, and a greatly improved salary. "I need someone to handle these matters," Vangelis told him, and went on to describe what he needed. Zannis understood right away and in time became known to the world at large as
a senior police official
, but to those with knowledge of the subterranean intricacies of the city's life, and soon enough to the Salonika street, he was simply "Zannis."

BOOK: Spies of the Balkans
9.39Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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